Workshop promotes creativity in youth

February 26, 2019 GMT

HUNTINGTON — A few years ago, Williamson, West Virginia, native Jim Pajarillo moved back to his sleepy southern hometown after having lived in the fast pace of San Francisco.

When the arts, theater, music and video-game loving Pajarillo found there wasn’t much of an outlet for youth to express their creative energy, he dove right in to help create things from scratch.

He helped start an all-ages open mic night at a local restaurant called Starters, and he’s created WillCon, a gaming, comic book and pop art convention that last year drew 1,000 mostly young people to the Williamson Field House.

He and other community advocates, who host a Creative Call out discussion every Wednesday evening at Starters, have also organized book signings, writers workshops, a pop-up art gallery and special events such as a classical piano concert by touring New York City pianist Miki Sawada.

When 75 people showed up on a rainy Monday night to see Sawada, after he only had 24 hours to book the concert, Pajarillo said he gained a new confidence that the arts can not just help a community survive but thrive.

“To tell you the truth, I had no idea how many people would come out. We don’t have these things, we don’t do these things, but 75 people turned out on a rainy Monday, and it was amazing,” Pajarillo said.

This past week at Huntington’s Heritage Farm Museum and Village, Pajarillo was one of 15 arts advocates from around West Virginia hand-picked to be trained to further stoke creative fires and create arts as commerce where they live.

About Artists Thrive

The training was conducted by Beth Flowers, of Berea College’s AIR Institute, and Heather Pontonio, the arts program director for the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, a Connecticut-based foundation that works with the AIR Institute on a community building initiative called Artists Thrive.

Sponsoring the training was the Charleston-based Tamarack Foundation for the Arts, which is the West Virginia affiliate of the AIR Institute.

The training, which took place Wednesday through Friday at Heritage Farm Museum and Village, was organized by Renee Margocee, executive director of the Tamarack Foundation for the Arts, with assistance locally from arts consultant Margaret Mary Layne, of Layne Consulting.

“This is expanding the mission of the Tamarack Foundation, which has been initially centered upon individual artists support, which is cool but now it is expanding to where we are going in and working in communities to do civic engagement utilizing the arts, strengthening community and as we talk about changing the narrative,” Margocee said. “Coming from my little town in Logan County, one of the impacts of the opioid epidemic is of course it makes neighbors not trust each other any more, and you hear people say, ’I don’t know, is your son a heroin addict? I’m not sure I want to be your friend.* So this is kind of about trying to reconnect the community.”

Cohorts on a mission

As a result of the training, those arts advocates will return home and organize meetings in each of West Virginia’s six arts districts recognized by the West Virginia Commission for the Arts.

The newly trained cohorts will gather key players from the arts and business communities at public meetings, in which they plan to blend creative placemaking with traditional community problem-solving.

The meetings are the first part of the AIR Institute’s community strategic planning called The Shift, which Layne describes as shifting people’s thinking of the artists in their community and what they contribute. Margocee said the hope is that business people and arts people will come up with some creative community solutions that can be made together.

“Bringing people together can dispel myths — that artists are not trustworthy and they won’t follow through and they are going to be late or that the businessmen are all stodgy,” Margocee said. “It is getting people together to break down some of those barriers, to create relationships and to figure out that we are all just human beings in the end. Let’s see what we can all do together in our communities to spark some change.”

Layne said they are working on additional grants to provide some seed money for those community cross-sector projects. She said there will be additional training through the AIR Institute called Evolve next year to bring those projects to fruition.

Part of last week’s training has been utilizing the Artists Thrive rubric (www.artiststhrive.org), which offers activities, practices, language, visions and values. The goal is to change the narrative in the field and raise the value of artists in every community.

Speaking the same language

Margocee said when it comes to economic development and creative placemaking it is important that artists and arts advocates have quantifiable measures and speak the same language.

“We are training our cohorts with other states. Every state within the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) footprint will have this happening,” Margocee said. “We are creating a network so that we are using the same language when we use a term we know what we are all saying. We are measuring the impact we are having in a way that is unified, so it will have more power, and it gives us an opportunity to learn what has worked and what has not been so successful in communities so we can borrow good ideas from each other.”

Creating in Princeton

For training attendees such as Pajarillo and Huntington’s Norman Branch, who has just signed a lease to bring his Stars R Us Theatre into the J.W. Scott Community Center where he will also offer an after-school multimedia project, they don’t have to look far for inspiration as to how the arts can remake a city.

Lori McKinney and her husband, Robert, have reshaped the arc of downtown Princeton with their Riff Raff Arts Collective, a now 13-year-old project at 865-869 Mercer St., that includes a live performance venue, a recording studio, artist studios and fine art gallery.

The couple has also run the September Culture Fest since 2004 at the West Virginia Folk Life Center in Pipestem. When they first came to Mercer Street, they were the proud owners of an abandoned 10,000-square-foot building and a bunch of dreams.

“It has 13 years of history of amazing music and extremely powerful creative experiences, and that is the epicenter,” McKinney said. “Theoretically, we all know that when you create that kind of positive energy, it amplifies outward and begins to effect everything around you. We thought it would be just a few years and we would turn everything around, but it took us 13 years later — now we are on the cusp of total transformation. It was like pushing the boulder up the hill and trying to move mountains on our own for a lot of years.”

McKinney said after setting the stage to go after their dreams of creating in downtown Princeton, many others are following suit. Her sister Melissa McKinney created a music school in 2008, and then one by one others have come — creating a book store, a new art gallery, a new coffee shop and the new Sophisticated Hound Brewing Company.

The McKinneys also started their own group, Create Your State (createyourstate.org), to help share information.

“We can move the entire human race forward if we were to pass on information,” McKinney said. “Like, ’Here let me open this door for you since no one opened it for me, and you can go and open a different door* and then that is how the human race moves forward—just share. That is what Create Your State is all about it. It is like a TED Talk with a rock concert.”

Heritage’s success

On Wednesday night, Audy Perry, executive director of the Heritage Farm Foundation, said they were proud to host a new generation of Appalachian problem-solvers. He showed the workshop attendees the inspirational short documentary about how his mom and dad started the Farm Museum and Village from one log cabin to the 800-acre Smithsonian-affiliated museum it is today.

Perry said with more than 6,000 school children visiting the farm each year, they, too, are changing the dialogue asking what problems the students would like to solve.

“One of the things we stopped asking school kids is what do you want to be when you grow up,” Perry told the workshop attendees. ”... We now ask them what problems do you want to solve? That is such a powerful shift in the conversation and something I wake up every morning thinking about.”

Perry said he has witnessed some profound moments as the students dig deep to answer that question.

“We had a group in here from a place where there are few jobs, no coal or trucks, no corner store any more but hope is not dead in Dunlow. We asked what problem they wanted to solve, and a little girl’s hand went up and she said, 1 want to make my grandma’s hands stop shaking,’” Perry said, tearing up. “Know that when you form up roundtable discussions that there is this good stuff coming from these mountains. We may have to endure misconceptions about us and unbelief about our ideas, but those are just mountains to overcome. Those are mountains that we have overcome for centuries.”